I recently re-watched "Wall-E," my favorite Pixar movie, and was struck as always by the simplicity of its premise and the great complexity of the world it builds. The cockroach companion was still cute, the fat-baby humans living aboard the spaceship Axiom still poignantly disturbing, and the notion of a salvageable planet still uplifting. But I was met with a sad realization.
It is appealing to an older set, or anyone who appreciates old Hollywood really, to include Wall-E’s obsession with love as inspired by the musical classic "Hello, Dolly!" Pixar, and many other animated film studios, love to throw parents a referential bone every now and then, and although "Wall-E" is chock full of powerful emotional and political resonance, the repetition of the musical cue forms a great deal of the film’s soul. I was heartened by the song’s refrain, but by film’s end, when Wall-E and his robot love Eve lead the way back to Earth, I noticed that the song’s old-fashioned white, heterosexism (which made sense for its time) matched the film’s. Gendered robots falling in love? A mission to revitalize and, presumably, repopulate the planet (with almost no people of color in sight)? And a future seemingly devoid (as far as we can see) of homosexuality? Of all Pixar films, "Wall-E" is about our future, about the way we relate to one another and the way we use our planet; should it not also concern itself with the diversity of human life?
In the past few years, animated film studios have touched a cautious toe into the waters of explicit or implicit homosexuality. Laika’s "ParaNorman," a film about what it is like to be an outcast, found its dumb jock character, Mitch, revealing that he has a boyfriend (much to the dismay of Norman’s older sister). Dreamworks’ "How to Train Your Dragon 2" contains a reference to one character’s inability to get married, or at least his lack of desire to marry a woman. Both instances have been confirmed by their directors as intentionally funny, warm expressions of a sexual orientation that differs from the prince-and-princess norm established over the last century. And Disney, the originator of the classically heterosexist fairy tale, broke new ground last year with Frozen, in which a snow-worn male shop keep waves to his family consisting of an adult man and a slew of children. Gay? Seems like it.
All three films were well received by critics who barely mentioned the queer moments, if they noticed them at all. Right-wing conservative groups paid a bit more attention, labeling the films and their directors as cogs of the gay agenda, implanting notions of sexual difference and perversity in the impressionable minds of their youthful audiences. Although Mitch’s homosexual reveal is blatant, how much would it really mean to the youthful target audience? And "HTTYD2" and "Frozen"’s references are so subtle that they may require repeat viewings to grasp. It is obvious that these moments are tender comic relief for parents, babysitters, and other adolescent-to-adult viewers who will appreciate (or not) the nonchalance and positivism of gay characters in the animated world. So, while there has been backlash (never enough to reduce whopping box office tallies), it seems to this viewer at least that some animated film studios are overstepping "Wall-E" to explore a future filled with varieties of human existence.
When will Pixar join the party? Arguably the most successful animated film studio of all time, if we don’t count papa bear Disney, Pixar is consistent and meticulous about their products. With "Cars 2" marking the only bottom-of-the-barrel thud since their first film "Toy Story" hit theaters way back in 1995, the John Lasseter-run company is a creative think tank unafraid of rewrites, overhauls, and stories which perhaps resonate better with adults than with their children. I would not argue that Pixar need find a way to shimmy a queer character into its beautifully-crafted stories at the expense of well-rendered narrative; looking ahead to the studio’s next few releases ("Inside Out," about the inner workings of a teenage girl’s brain, "The Good Dinosaur," presumably about our prehistoric friends, and "Finding Dory," a sequel to the wildly popular "Finding Nemo" with Ellen’s forgetful blue fish at the forefront), it seems doubtful that we could see any hints of homosexuality dropped. One wonders why this most innovative of studios has not found the space for differing sexual orientations amidst its colorful casts of characters. Too risky financially? This is clearly not a problem. Too difficult or improbable to include in a children’s animated film? Other studios have found subtle, beautiful ways.
I love animated films, and therefore I love Pixar, and Laika, and Dreamworks, and Disney. I am looking forward to Laika’s next feature "The Boxtrolls," which once again let the rainbow flag fly in its first trailer, intoning, “Sometimes there’s a mother. Sometimes there’s a father. Sometimes there’s a father…and a father.” I am fascinated by the dawning of a queer trend in kid’s entertainment, one that seems to be growing organically from directors and studios interested in breaking boundaries. One Million Moms and the American Family Association cannot keep these films from attracting and entertaining huge swaths of the general public, and the nature of their gay moments leaves room for families to decide what they’d like their children to understand. In essence, the effort to queer animated films is a subtle, joyful, and inclusive one, a movement not toward “turning” children gay but toward providing safe, loving communities for children who are realizing that they are gay.
I cannot fault "Wall-E" for much, and it seems silly to be too upset with Pixar for not innovating the LGBT-inclusive animated film. They are simply windows onto an opportunity not spent. I only hope that the humans aboard the Axiom, whether we see them or not, would be free to build happy families and relationships of all kinds upon returning to Earth. And I think we can all hope that in the future, when queerness is itself a subtle, human quality, we get a gay prince charming, a protagonist to call our own.